Kamala Harris made Joe Biden forget how to be Joe Biden.
Maybe she even made him forget that he was Joe Biden, former vice president of the United States and a man whose greatest political gift was the ability to ooze empathy.
The moment came during the second night of the three-ring circus of a Democratic presidential debate in Miami. The debate format featured 10 candidates and almost as many moderators each night.
Given the size of the field and the number of media interrogators it’s surprising the fire marshal allowed the event to proceed.
In such crowded circumstances, each candidate’s challenge was to separate herself or himself from the pack and connect with a large slice of America.
A handful — Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg — did just that.
But none of them made more of an impact than Harris did.
The first-term California U.S. senator and former prosecutor went after the big dog, frontrunner Biden, and took him down in a way that combined both grace and grit.
The climax occurred when Harris and Biden talked about race, segregation and busing. Biden had made news by touting his chummy relationships in the old days with segregationist members of the U.S. Senate as evidence of his ability to get things done in a bipartisan fashion.
Harris’s takedown was note-perfect.
She began by lowering her voice and saying she didn’t believe Biden was a racist himself. But she talked about how hurtful it was to her personally as an African-American — in the process, establishing herself as the champion of all Americans who have felt dispossessed, disregarded or disenfranchised — to speak so uncritically of people who would deny her both her rights and her full measure of humanity.
Then she went after Biden’s troubled and contradictory record on busing. She spoke of her own experience as a little girl riding the bus to integrate her school in California and how overwhelming that was for someone so young.
Biden in his best form would have responded at a human level. Perhaps the best public moment the man ever has had occurred in the 2008 vice presidential debate when he dealt with an implied charge from opponent Sarah Palin that he was elitist and out of touch by talking about his anguish and doubt he felt after losing his first wife and his infant daughter in an accident. He made it clear he had reservoirs of pain to draw upon that would help him understand others’ suffering.
But Biden didn’t do that this time. He didn’t even acknowledge Harris’s pain.
Instead, he looked stunned.
Then he flailed.
He tried reciting his legislative record. When that didn’t seem to be working, he resorted to spouting gibberish.
It was a devastating turn of events for Biden. His strongest argument for claiming the Democratic presidential nomination is that he is the most electable candidate.
But most Americans watching the debate saw him dissolve into blathering before their eyes and couldn’t help thinking that, come general election time, President Donald Trump would carve Biden up into thin slices just right for sandwich servings.
The former vice president was the biggest loser at the debate. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke also did himself no favors by showing up with little more than a smile and an ability to speak Spanish as his case to make.
The other big loser was NBC. The network apparently decided that the best way to simplify an event that already was overcrowded and confusing was to overcrowd and confuse it even more. Everyone, it seemed, who ever had worked at NBC got a chance to moderate.
If the debate had gone on much longer, I’m pretty sure the network would have given anyone who ever had taken a tour of the NBC studios a chance at the mic.
Where do things go from here?
Well, Biden now looks vulnerable in a way he didn’t before. Expect the other candidates to study what Harris did and go after him in a similar fashion.
The former vice president will have to fashion a better response than sputtering nonsense.
She sent a strong signal that anyone who wants to tangle with someone as tough as she is had better bring friends along.
A lot of them.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.